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Dante at the diner

I had lunch again this week with the publisher of the “Trumpet
Messenger,” my friend Marcel LeRoi ([email protected]). Our conversation
began with the perils of Y2K. But we soon turned to Dante’s Divine
Comedy. (Marcel owns a valuable edition, illustrated by André Doré.)

Dante had a vision of both “Paradiso” and the “Inferno.” He gave
immortality to his descriptions of various levels of hell. To each level
he condemned specific infamous persons — many of whom were his
Florentine contemporaries. He reserved the lowest level for “Traitors
and Assassin” — like Judas and Brutus. To an upper level the poet
assigned “Men Without honor and Women Without Virtue.” These included
such conventional sinners as debauched Paolo and his adulterous
mistress, Francesca — whose skulls Dante fused together for eternity.
(Inspired by Dante, in 1996 I used “Without Honor” as a title for a book
on Watergate.)

Our conversation at the Sandy Hook Diner led to speculation on
contemporary sinners. With Marcel’s help I acquired some new insights.
Based on youthful travels through Europe (combined with more recent
experience as an attorney both for juvenile delinquents and adult
felons) I have come to some tentative conclusions.

Many writers have attempted to update Dante — often in jokes. For
example, an amusing article once appeared in the London Times (before it
was bought by the multi-national mogul, Rupert Murdoch.) These days the
same article would probably be rejected as politically incorrect. It
described heaven as: English policemen, French cooks, German mechanics,
Italian lovers, organized by the Swiss. Hell was: English cooks, French
mechanics, German policeman, Swiss lovers, organized by the Italians.

Swiss-Italian author and film director Lena Wertmueller (“Love and
Anarchy.” “Seven Beauties”) has said that in hell devils beat the heads
of inmates with hammers. For her there are two levels. On the deeper
level the inmates get daily beatings. On the less punitive level the
inmates enjoy frequent respite. The devils there are Italians — who
often go on strike.

Our efforts to update Dante in the local diner are non-ethnic. Also,
we can’t decide whether there are stratified levels of hell. But there
are clearly at least three classes of potential inmates, and all three
are exemplified by current types of politicians.

Members of one class are described by their more virtuous colleagues
as “political animals.” They are sociopaths who really know the
difference between good and evil — but “don’t give a damn.” The few who
are brilliant enough to attain high office are a clear and present
danger. We are optimistic enough to consider them a minority. (But, it
may not bode well for the next millennium that the only two
impeachment-confirmed cases of sociopathology in the Oval Office in
history have both occurred in the final quarter of this century.)

Those of the second class are much more common. To make themselves
popular they sometimes do good things. But when it is to their personal
advantage they knowingly defend evil. Some of their names (from both
parties) are now listed on the Internet. One such list is Lew Rockwell’s
“Dishonor Roll” published by World Net Daily. (Among others, it includes
one senator who cultivates a public image of deep religious piety.
Sadly, he is from Connecticut, where our favorite diner is located.)

The third class has been in existence for a long time. As was noted
in the 18th century by Edmund Burke, “For evil to prevail, simply
requires that enough good men do nothing.” Tragically, such persons now
seem much more popular than in the past. Twenty-five years ago there
were sufficient senators from his own party to destroy the
then-president’s political base — and persuade him to resign. Recently,
all of the senators of our current president’s party — and even a few
of the opposition party — voted to acquit.

At lunch I told Marcel, “I’m no Dante. I don’t know which class to
damn the most.” I lowered my voice and added, “… But let ’em all go to
hell!” Marcel is more reverent. With solemnity, followed by a slight
smile, he said, “In the end only God can pass final judgment on them —
but I suspect that more than one will go to the Inferno.”

Finally, to end on a positive note: Dante also had a vision of
Paradiso. Hopefully, heaven will be accessible to millions of good
people who will go to the polls in Y2K to vote against defenders of

Jerome Zeifman formerly served as the House Judiciary Committee’s chief
counsel. His book “Without Honor: The Impeachment of President Nixon
and the Crimes of Camelot” is now out-of-print but is being republished
in e-book form. Comments may be sent to
[email protected].